Australian Book Review: ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’ by Bob Stanley, December 2014

A piece for Australian Book Review published in December 2014, republished below in its entirety.

Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley

'Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop' book cover by Bob Stanley, reviewed in Australian Book Review by Andrew McMillen, December 2014It is difficult to imagine a more satisfying long-form narrative about pop music than Yeah Yeah Yeah. Although the book runs to almost 800 pages, British author Bob Stanley writes with such authority and infectious passion that the momentum never skips a beat. Beginning with the first British hit parade and the popularisation of the electric guitar, Stanley traces the arc through to modern forms such as dance and hip-hop while fulfilling the role of tour guide. He takes the reader through a museum of pop music, pausing before significant artefacts to offer erudite commentary, and encouraging the reader to don headphones and experience the sounds of each era.

In the introduction, Stanley states his intention of drawing a straight line – ‘with the odd wiggle and personal diversion’ – from the birth of the seven-inch single to the recent decline of pop music as a physical thing. Stanley selects 1952 as the art form’s beginning, and charts its next fifty years through five parts and sixty-five distinct chapters, which intelligently group together artists, labels, scenes, and genres. Footnotes are included on almost every second page, a stylistic trait which the author never abuses; each aside and knowing reference contributes to the wider story being told. The purpose of Yeah Yeah Yeah is to tell pop’s story, and since the vast majority of the most influential pop acts began in either England or the United States, it is in these two engine rooms that much of the narrative is situated. Only a couple of Australia’s contributions are mentioned in passing, most notably AC/DC and The Saints, two seminal rock bands.

From the outset, Stanley makes clear his unabashed enthusiasm for pop music. Covering five decades of human expression through sound would be a tedious and dreary task if the writer had not been fascinated by records since before he could walk. Fittingly, Stanley is unafraid to wear his own preferences on his sleeve; certainly, the presence or absence of particular artists can be attributed to the author’s tastes, but he never lowers himself into outright sneering élitism. When writing about American rock band Steely Dan, for example, he admits to trying hard to love the band as so many others do, before concluding, ‘I think, as with ninety per cent of jazz, I might like them a lot more one day.’ Regardless of his own response to musical genres, Stanley is willing to engage with the source material and to contextualise these artistic achievements on a grand scale.

It takes considerable restraint on the reader’s part not to pause every few pages and seek out the music that Stanley writes about. Indeed, much of the fun of reading this excellent book is hearing chorus hooks and key changes play in your mind. We are lucky enough to be living in an age where most of the music discussed in Yeah Yeah Yeah can be heard on YouTube, if not a streaming service like Rdio or Spotify. This technological endpoint is flagged in his introduction, and, thankfully, our forty-nine-year-old narrator is not another Luddite trapped in the past, feebly shaking his fist at the demise of vinyl, cassettes, and compact discs. Stanley does not fetishise the physical product, as so many of his peers do; instead, it is clear throughout that the music itself is what’s important, rather than the medium of delivery.

Stanley maintains a wry tone throughout Yeah Yeah Yeah, and never slips into navel-gazing academia. The book is all the stronger for this consistent voice. Personal anecdotes are frequent: midway through the book, after pointing out possibly his favourite lyric ever – ‘If I could get a job with that cool rockin’ band / you’d notice me with that red guitar in my hand,’ by British glam-rockers Wizzard – Stanley notes, ‘There it is. The entire pop myth in one couplet.’

Soon after, in a chapter dedicated to country and western, Stanley points out ‘the most beautiful line in the whole pop canon’, which appears in ‘Wichita Lineman’ by Glen Campbell: ‘I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.’ It is a line, writes Stanley, ‘that makes me stop whatever I’m doing’. Moments like these enhance the book’s credibility. Another favourite example appears in a chapter concerning New York rock act the Velvet Underground. In one particular section on the track ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’, the band, Stanley writes, ‘had somehow created a noise so brand new that it tore a hole in pop’s natural state of progression, so sharp and freakish and heart-piercing that it makes me burst out laughing every time I hear it’.

Importantly, the author is not just an excitable tour guide but a practitioner, too. In 1990, Bob Stanley founded a pop group named Saint Etienne. While he is modest enough to leave his own musical contributions out of the book’s main narrative, his understanding of songwriting mechanics, tricks, and techniques is on constant display. While Saint Etienne’s contribution to pop is admirable, and not easily forgotten, Stanley’s written work will last even longer. The book’s subtitle is ambitious, yet there can be no doubt that, with Yeah Yeah Yeah, the author has achieved his storytelling goal.

Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.

Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop
by Bob Stanley
Faber, $39.95 pb, 776 pp, 9780571281978

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